TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 51 Mixing Horns

This week in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series we look at Horns in the mix.

Last week I included a link to an article which looked at how Stevie Wonder’s hit track ‘Superstition’ was put together using just 16 tracks, 8 of which were Clavinet. The article included mp3s you could listen to, featuring the separate components of the song. I’m including it in this week’s blog because it shows the simple but very effective horn arrangement that is a big part of the signature of the song.

Horns can be any combination of Trumpet, Sax and Trombone (and sometimes a few other instruments too). We looked at recording horn sections in this earlier blog, followed by solo horns in the next blog.

Four Piece Horn Section In Home Studio.

Playing horns is physically demanding. You never know how long the players will last before ‘collapsing with exhaustion’, especially if they’re not pros. After everyone has warmed up, consider focusing on the more difficult parts first when the musicians are at their freshest.

Different notes can be played on brass instruments using the same valve combination – or in the case of trombone, slide position – by varying lip, tongue and jaw position. So there is room for error when trying to reach certain notes, especially higher registers.

You will need to decide whether a missed or ‘cracked’ note is worth keeping because the overall performance was good or whether the musicians need to record another take. So record everything your horn section plays (including rehearsals) and allow for several rest breaks.

Horn arrangements can utilise combinations of unison lines (and/or octaves) and chord triads. With two players, harmonies of thirds or sixths tend to work over roots and fifths for melodies that move in parallel or sustained notes. For inspiration take a listen to the recordings of Miles Davis, Coltrane, Chuck Mangione or Freddie Hubbard.

One Of My Favourite Horn Players – I’ve Seen Composer & Trumpeter Mark Isham Perform Many Times.

The trumpet often plays the melody or top note of the voicing in a standard three-part horn section. Doubling high unisons produces a powerful result. An alternative approach to get a strong triad chord voicing is to put the trombone lowest, trumpet in the middle and the tenor sax on the top.

Many trumpet players also play the more mellow flugel (horn). This instrument does not have the strident quality or brightness of the trumpet and has a lower range. The flugel is more suited to slower ballads.

The Versatile LeRoi Moore (Dave Matthews Band) Who Died In 2008 Played Various Instruments – Sax, Flute, Oboe & Clarinet.

Saxophones come in various sizes. The soprano sax is not a common instrument in a horn section unless playing the melody, it’s mostly used for solos. Alto saxophone has a similar range to the trumpet and sounds good as a solo or section player. The tenor sax is in the same range as the trombone and unison voicings of these two sound good together. The bari sax will often work well playing lead-ins to the root of the chord. Take a listen to Motown tracks – Baby Love, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and Heatwave.

Wycliffe Gordon – Busy Trombonist With The Wynton Marsalis Septet.

The trombone is a powerful instrument which can play an octave lower than the trumpet. The bass trombone is usually used in larger bands and has a lower range than the standard instrument.

If you’re trying to achieve a good strong, dual harmony – have the trombone and trumpet play in unison whilst the sax plays the upper harmony.

There are many combinations of horns that work. The popular combo of trumpet, sax and trombone is pretty standard and is used extensively.

Chicago Horn Section – Trombone, Sax & Trumpet.

But there’s no rule which says you must have all three instruments to make a horn section sound good. You can produce great results with just two instruments – trumpet/sax, trumpet/trombone or sax/trombone – with some careful arranging and doubling. Or try a couple of tracks of overdubbed trumpet and trombone with added octaves.

Recording, then mixing horns in a home studio setting can be challenging. To achieve a fuller sound get the players to double track their parts. Pan each part to the left and right. Record a third part and pan it down the middle to give an ever fuller sound.

Generally speaking if there are two players, try tripling the parts; with three players try doubling. But remember to keep detailed notes on what the different parts are playing – the highest melody, the middle or lowest and what instruments are playing in each combo. For example, one track might contain consistent upper melody played by trumpet and tenor sax, otherwise at mix time you could end up with several tracks of horns and no idea how they should all go together.

Here are some popular groupings of instruments…..

With a single player – often sax or trumpet – try unison doublings (double tracking) for solos and sometimes chords.

Two players – often trumpet with sax or trombone – allows for doubling or tripling of parts to give a rich, thick sound. If you’re aiming for 4 to 6 part harmony this may take quite a bit of rehearsal to get the parts sounding good and tight for each combo.

Yet Another Three Horn Combination – Two Sax & Trumpet.

Three players – commonly trumpet, sax and trombone – can achieve 6 part harmony with doubling. If the players are well rehearsed or often play together, they should be tight and produce a great resultant sound. An alternative three horn setup is 2 trumpets with trombone. And remember you can always supplement a horn section with a good synth/sample brass part.

Four players – common groupings are 2 trumpets and 2 trombones; or 2 trumpets, sax and trombone. Big 8 part harmonies with powerful unisons are possible. The more players in the combo, the tighter they need to be. It just takes one horn player to be slightly early or late and it can ruin an otherwise perfect performance.

Five horn players – 3 trumpets and 2 trombones or two trumpets, two tenors and a baritone sax (see Tower Of Power) – should sound pretty full. Doubling may just be too much. Try adding a sax as a separate line.

One Page Of A 5 Part Horn Arrangement For 2 Trumpets, Tenor Sax, Trombone & Baritone Sax.

The frequency range for most horns you’re likely to encounter, goes from a little below 50 Hz up to 1.8 kHz. But they have a very strong harmonic content between 2.5-5 kHz. This is the area that gives horns their bite or edgy sound. So pay attention to this frequency range. Too much and you’ll drown everything else out in your mix. Too little and your horns may have difficulty in cutting through.

Each horn type has a specific tonal range, so different EQ considerations need to be applied to each instrument. However, in general the 100-200 Hz range can be boosted to improve warmth to particularly thin sounding instruments. The 400-800 Hz range is where a lot of muddiness exists. In the more bass range instruments like tuba or bass trombone, you may find the muddiness is more prominent in the 200-400 Hz range. So listen to each instrument’s merits and weaknesses and EQ accordingly. Boosting the 2.5-5 kHz range should add and improve the attack. If the horn needs more air/breathiness try boosting in between 7-9 kHz.

Also bear in mind that if you use just brass (trumpet, trombone) or just reed (sax) instruments, the resultant tone won’t be as rich as using a combination of brass and reed.

Compression – Gentle 2:1 Ratio, A Good Place To Start For Horns.

Good horn players rarely need compressing whilst recording. But if you feel the dynamics are a little wide in the mix, try some gentle compression. Start with a ratio of 2 or 3:1, a fast attack (5-10 ms) and a slower release (80-100 ms). Listen to the effect on the horns and adjust the gain reduction until you get the power, punch and clarity you require for your song.

Reverb and echo/delay can work on solo horns to great effect. On horn sections a touch of reverb can sometimes help, but in general, use effects with caution. If your home studio room is small and has been treated to reduce reflections, there will be little natural reverberation, so a good plate or hall verb will usually improve the horn sound. Rumour has it that the TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2, designed for vocals, works well on horns too.

TC Helicon VoiceLive 2 – Vocal Effects Processor Used By Some Horn Players Too.

Alternatively, if you’re able to get the use of a church or large hall to record in or even a tiled bathroom, you may get the sound you’re looking for. Of course, the only way you’ll be able to tell which effects work and which ones don’t, is to try them.

The success of a horn section in a mix depends on the song and the horn arrangement as much as the combination. So if you have access to the various players try different combos, different voicings, harmonies and doublings. For some inspiration, listen to the likes of Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears or Tower Of Power.

If you can play keyboards, you could always use some good quality samples for a complete horn section or supplement a pairing of real instruments with a third or more from your keyboard. I’ve heard good reports about Mojo: Horn Section.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at MIDI. Then move onto Mastering, the final stage of the music recording process.

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